Sometimes in life you just get lucky. Like the time I got to borrow my friend Joshua’s SLR and put a few rolls of film through it and it happened to be, by many accounts, one of the best SLRs ever made. The much-coveted Nikon FM3a.
As someone who uses a rangefinder for my good film camera and occasionally plays with one cheap point-and-shoot or another, it was great to give the FM3a a spin and see how an SLR handles in comparison to what I’m used to.
The very short answer is that I really enjoyed using it and am happy with some of the results it gave me. But you probably want to know more than just that. So in this review, I’ll cover as much as I can. From the technical specs to my own personal experience.
If it makes you want to get your own FM3a, I’ll warn you straight away. They’re not cheap. But they are probably – probably – worth the price. You can see what that price currently is as well as their availability at KEH Camera or on eBay.
What is the Nikon FM3a?
First sold in 2001 and discontinued a mere five years later in 2006, the FM3a is an interchangeable-lens, single lens reflex 35mm camera. Available in black and chrome versions, it was the final release in Nikon’s popular line of compact, semi-professional 35mm film SLRs.
The FM3a’s main predecessors were either mechanical or electronic cameras, with the former being the FM, FM2, and FM2n (new) which were available from in 1977-1982, 1982-1984 and 1984-2001, and the latter being the FE and FE2 that were available from 1978-1983 and 1983-1987.
This meant that for years, people who wanted one of these cameras had to choose between a fully mechanical one that had to be shot with manual exposure control or an electronic one that had aperture priority mode but also an electronic shutter that wouldn’t work without batteries.
Early versions of auto-focus were around at the time, but all of Nikon’s FMs and the FEs were manual focus only. Fast forward to the mid-to-late 1990s though and this had become more of a rarity, with auto-focus a must in consumer level point-and-shoots and common in professional SLRs too.
However, not everybody wanted their cameras to be controlled so much by computers and electronics that had a shorter shelf life than the old school mechanical ones.
For some, especially seasoned Nikon users, the ideal was a manual focus SLR that incorporated the aperture priority mode of the discontinued Nikon FE series but kept the rock solid, shoot anywhere mechanical workings of their FM counterparts.
So Nikon gave them exactly what they were asking for with the FM3a. When it replaced the FM2n in 2001, it was more than just the next in the mechanical side of the series. To become the true pinnacle of this range, to become its final form, it took on the electronic capabilities of the FE models too.
You could infer from the name – FM3a – that it’s a mechanical camera at heart with the automatic stuff added to it. Regardless, it gave keen amateur photographers the best of both worlds.
A solidly built, compact SLR with the convenience of aperture priority mode right there when it’s wanted and the ability to shoot fully mechanically – even up to 1/4000 of a second – if the batteries die or it gets too cold for them to work.
My personal experience shooting the Nikon FM3a
The FM3a I borrowed and shot presented a whole new experience for me. When I got into photography, I bought myself a Sony mirrorless camera, which I’ve had ever since. My film camera collection consists of two cheap point-and-shoots and a Yashica Electro rangefinder.
That means this was the first SLR I ever got to shoot for any length of time, which in turn means I can’t measure it against any other SLRs in this review. All I can do is talk about it at face value and compare it to the Electro when relevant.
Perhaps the best place to start is how it feels in your hands. For me, again compared to the Yashica, it was smaller than I’m used to but reassuringly solid and heavy. If you want real numbers, it’s around 142.5 x 90 x 58 mm (5.6 x 3.5 x 2.3 in) and weighs around 570g.
Loading the film was the same as with most other cameras of this type. You pull up the film rewind knob on the top the camera, insert the film, put the rewind knob back down, pull the leader over and feed it into the other side, shoot a frame and advance it to wrap it around, close the back, and you’re ready to go.
If you need to see that in video form, there are plenty on YouTube. Like this one right here:
Because I only had the FM3a for a short period of time, I probably didn’t use half the features it has. In fact, there will be plenty I didn’t even know it had when I shot with it.
As it was the first time I’d played with an SLR, I tried to keep things as familiar as I could. This mainly meant shooting in the same way I do with my Electro – in aperture priority mode, set to f8 or f11, and using zone focusing.
Another thing I did was take the chance to shoot some high ISO film that my Yashica can’t do at box speed as its highest ISO setting is 1000. These films were a roll of Fujicolor Natura 1600, a roll of Kodak T-Max 3200, and a roll of Ilford Delta 3200.
For the purposes of other articles about these films, I shot a mixture of daytime, nighttime, and indoor shots of each and all at ISO 1600. So the images you’ll see below are pretty grainy, but that’s not a slight on the camera or the lens.
It’s a shame I didn’t get to shoot low ISO film in daylight for cleaner example photographs here, but I suppose this at least demonstrates that the FM3a allows you to shoot in all conditions. Anything up to ISO 6400, in fact.
Technically, I found the camera to be very well designed ergonomically and very easy to use once I got used to it, which didn’t take long at all.
At the time I shot it I hadn’t looked up how old it was, and I think it would have been pretty hard for me to guess. It looks and feels older than a 21st century camera, but has the electronic features of something more modern than its appearance would suggest.
A couple of things that were noticeably different when shooting were half-opening the film advance lever to turn it on, and the loud mirror slap when taking a photograph that my regular rangefinder doesn’t have. It made me worried sometimes that my shot may come out blurred because of it.
I didn’t need to worry about getting used to the split prism viewfinder as I was using zone focus anyway, although I did play with it a little on a couple of close up shots you’ll see below. I’m sure it would become as second nature to me as a rangefinder focus system is now if I used it for long enough.
The viewfinder too was big and bright, and doesn’t black out when you take a shot like they do on some other Nikon SLR cameras. There’s a very handy match-needle meter built in at the side as you look through and a small window at the top telling you the aperture you’re set to also.
Again though, as I was shooting in aperture priority mode and mainly at f8 or f11, I hardly needed to use them.
Some real world Nikon FM3a example shots
One thing I miss out on by shooting with the Yashica Electro all the time is being able to change the lens. I had the choice of a few when I borrowed this FM3a but went with a focal length I’ve wanted to try for a long time.
And while I have technically shot a lot with a 28mm lens before, that was on an APS-C mirrorless camera so was effectively more like a 42mm.
Here, I really enjoyed playing with the extra width the actual 28mm field of view gave me. I think it suits my style of composing big street scenes and is a focal length I’d love to shoot more with.
f2.8 isn’t too shabby either for a 28mm lens so I tried a couple of shallow depth of field shots at an indoor market too, just for a change. They came out well enough, for me.
As mentioned, I only shot high ISO films with the FM3a so you might have to forgive the grain here. You’re not going to be seeing a demonstration of cleanliness in film photography.
That said, if I’d have borrowed a camera and only shot the same kind of images I do with my own, which in this case would mean a low ISO film in daylight and with a lens somewhere around the regular 50mm focal length, it would have been a wasted opportunity to do something different.
So here are some of what I got with the FM3a and 28mm f2.8 lens. All shot at ISO 1600, the first six are on Fujicolor Natura 1600, then three on Kodak T-Max 3200, and a final three on Ilford Delta 3200.
Nikon FM3a features and technical specs
The FM3a was not a cheap camera when it was released back in 2001. And as I write this in 2020, it still isn’t. So if you were to invest in one, I think you’d be doing so with the idea of using far more of its features than I did.
If all you need is an f8 and be there camera and don’t have money to burn, this probably ain’t it chief.
So what are these features that I didn’t use? What specs does it have that make it so sought after as well as expensive? Pull up a chair and I’ll tell you about some of the highlights.
Perhaps the biggest thing here is the very reason it was made. That it can operate as an electronic SLR with automatic aperture priority exposure or as a fully mechanical one should you ever need it to.
The fact it can maintain its 1/4000 of second shutter speed without a battery is astounding. Whether you’d ever need to take advantage of that ability is another question entirely, but it’s an impressive thing to sell to people.
Flash photography is something else I don’t do but if you do, you’ll probably want to know that you get TTL OTF, or through-the-lens, off-the-film if you want to use the big words, flash exposure control for your money here too.
When set to aperture priority mode, the FM3a isn’t limited to the shutter speeds denoted on the dial. It can and will choose speeds in between them based on the readings it gets from its 60/40 centre-weighted light meter.
When you set the camera to manual mode and have working batteries in it, they still power the light meter as that helps you with the match-needle exposure meter in the viewfinder.
Further little features that I didn’t use include an exposure lock button, automatic yet overrideable reading of film DX codes, a self-timer, a depth-of-field preview lever, a flash exposure compensation button, and a tab that lets you shoot multiple exposures without winding the film on.
Of all these, it’s probably that last one that I’d want to try the most given another chance.
The top of the camera is packed with extra controls too. On the left side you have the ISO and exposure compensation along with the film rewind knob, while on the right is the film advance lever, shutter button, film counter, and that multiple exposure lever.
On the back of the camera is a film window that saves you cutting a piece off your box and sliding it into the little slot that many older cameras have if you’re worried you might forget what you have loaded.
Street photography with the FM3a
I usually include a street photography with… section in my reviews, be they camera or film or vintage lens, because that’s what I’ve mostly been shooting. I haven’t done enough landscape or portrait to be able to talk in too much detail about how gear relates to them as yet.
What I can say though is this FM3a was 98% great for what I wanted to shoot with it. Once I’d gotten used to how it felt in my hands and was confident my zone focus was set right, I was pretty much as comfortable as I needed to be.
The relatively small body of the camera was easier to handle than the Yashica Electro I’m used to, while the big, bright viewfinder made framing shots easy whether in the daytime or by night.
Setting it at f8 or f11 and zone focusing made it almost like a point-and-shoot, while having to go down to f5.6 after dark or indoors was only a touch more inconvenient.
The 28mm lens was a lot of fun to play with and overall the FM3a did a good job of getting out of the way and being a distraction-free street photography camera. In fact I got so used to it that the first time I took the Electro out afterwards, I tried to turn it on by pushing the film advance lever on more than one occasion.
On a technical level, being able to shoot anything up to ISO 6400 means being able to shoot at night, which I took advantage of, while that 1/4000 second shutter speed means being able to take good, shallow depth of field street portraits in bright sun even with maybe an ISO 400 film loaded, which I didn’t.
The reason I’ll say this was a 98% great camera for street photography is that there were two downsides, which I’ll arbitrarily value at -1% each.
First is that mirror slap. I don’t think it ever affected my actual images in any way, but it sounded like it might at the time. And it’s definitely not helping to keep you discreet if that’s your aim.
Second is me worrying about something that might never happen, which is not something I like to do. But given how expensive an FM3a is, having something happen to it – lost, stolen, dropped etc – was a concern when I borrowed this one and would be an ongoing concern should I ever own one.
And finally, another reason I wanted to include this section. Some more shots I took with this camera out on the street. Again, the first four are on Fujicolor Natura 1600, the next two are on Kodak T-Max 3200, and the last two are on Ilford Delta 3200.
Lenses available for the FM3a
The FM3a uses Nikon’s F-mount, which means you’ll never be short of lenses you can buy and try on yours. That doesn’t mean you can use every Nikon lens ever made, though.
In 1977, they introduced a new coupling system called Automatic Maximum Aperture Indexing, or AI for short. In 1982, they brought out another called AI-S which allowed cameras to use Program or Shutter Priority modes.
If you want to be sure a lens is compatible with your FM3a, you should go for either an AI or an AI-S one. Anything pre-AI might need to be physically modified to fit without damaging your camera.
Avoid Nikon G lenses too, as these are made for digital SLRs and so have no aperture ring on them, and the even newer AF-P lenses that will not focus at all on a film camera.
So to recap, you should be looking at either of the following:
- post-1977 AI or AIS F-mount lenses
- pre-1977 F-mount lenses if they’ve been suitably modified
Brand new FM3a cameras came with a special Nikkor 45mm f2.8P pancake lens. These were either black or chrome, depending on the colour of the body they came with.
I’m not sure they had the best reviews or reputation but you could certainly check them out if you wanted to be an FM3a completist.
As mentioned, I shot with a Nikkor 28mm f2.8 and really enjoyed doing so. For build quality and a fun focal length, I can heartily recommend these lenses.
If money is a little tighter, the best bang for your buck might be found in a 50mm lens. These are usually the cheapest in any range.
For another great value option with a little wider field of view, a 35mm lens also shouldn’t break the bank and should be readily available.
Finally, if you have plenty of cash to spend and wanted to go non-Nikon, the Voigtlander Ultron 40mm f2 is often highly recommended too.
- check current Voigtlander Ultron 40mm f2 prices at KEH
- check current Voigtlander Ultron 40mm f2 prices on eBay
Nikon FM3a accessories
If the huge lens choice – which according to Nikon goes from 14mm to 1000mm – and all the built-in functions and features aren’t enough for you, there are a number of accessories you can use to beef up your FM3a even further.
The first is the MD-12 Motor Drive, which fits to the bottom of the camera and gives you the ability to shoot at over 3 frames per second. It will almost double the size of your camera set-up but would be very useful if you’re shooting fast-moving subjects.
Next up is the SB-27 Speedlight, a fully adjustable compact flash that enables the FM3a’s TTL metering. It can be set to bounce the flash in multiple directions and with different effects for portrait photography. Numerous other Nikon Speedlights are available but this is the one they recommend in the FM3a manual.
If you want to superimpose the year, month, day, hour, minute or frame number onto your photographs for some reason, you could pick up the MF-16 Data Back. It also has an alarm you can set to go off at any time and can be used at the same time as the MD-12 Motor Drive too.
Although the FM3a can operate mechanically without batteries, there is a DB-2 Anti-Cold Battery Pack that can keep the electronics working in low temperature. You can’t use a tripod when the DB-2 is attached but if it’s cold enough to need one, you might want to keep moving anyway.
Nikon produced a number of semi-soft cases for the FM3a and other and FE and FM cameras. The original one for a camera with a regular 50mm lens mounted to it was the CF-27S. Good luck finding one of those, though. Fortunately, you can still pick up a brand new leather half-case for your FM3a today.
If you want an official neck strap from the time the FM3a was released, they came in a variety of styles and do still look pretty cool today. A genuine Nikon product with genuine retro style. Check out the AN-4Y yellow mesh one, or the wider yellow AN-6Y or wine red AN-6W.
- check current AN-4y prices on eBay
- check current AN-6Y prices on eBay
- check current AN-6W prices on eBay
To eliminate camera shake during long exposures using the camera’s Bulb mode, you’ll probably need a shutter release cable. Bulb mode, in case you didn’t know, keeps the shutter open until you let go of the release button. The Nikon release cable from the time of the FM3a is the AR-3.
There are also a number of eyepiece attachments that can help you see differently through the viewfinder. First is the DK-3 Eyecup. This can help reduce unwanted light in the viewfinder, giving you a clearer picture of what you’re shooting. It can also help reduce eye strain.
Meanwhile, the DG-2 Eyepiece Magnifier enlarges the image at the centre of the viewfinder to aid you with your close-up or telephotography. The DG-2 has a hinged mechanism so you don’t need to remove it to use the camera without it, which is handy if you’re quickly flipping between needing it and not.
The DR-4 Right-Angle Viewer allows you to look through the viewfinder from a 90 degree angle, which is very handy if shooting macro photography with the camera on the ground or high up on a copy stand. To use the DR-4 with the FM3a though, an extra ring adaptor – the DK-13 – is needed.
Finally, a bunch of Eye Correction Lenses are available too for dioptry adjustment. These can be screwed into the camera’s eyepiece to help if you’re near or farsighted. Nine models are available, ranging from -5 to +3, and it’s recommended you try before you buy as the one you need will depend on how your eyesight is.
Nikon FM3a vs FE, FM, FE2, FM2, and FM2n
We already know the FM3a combines the mechanical construction of the FM, FM2 and FM2n with the electronic workings of the FE and FE2, but you’d imagine it has some additional features that none of the above had too.
And it certainly did. I’m not going to get too deep into the weeds of comparing every function to every older model here though. Instead, I’ve put everything that was new or unique to the FM3a into this handy list.
- hybrid electronic mechanical shutter
- Nikon K3 viewfinder screen as standard
- no viewfinder black out when shooting
- film window on the camera back
- automatic DX code reading as well as manual
- flash ready LED in the viewfinder
- rear button exposure lock
Buying a Nikon FM3a today
The comedian Mitch Hedberg once said “I used to do drugs. I still do, but I used to, too.” In a similar vein, buying a Nikon FM3a used to cost a lot. It still does, but it used to, too.
There are a few reasons for this and they begin back when the cameras were being made. As they were only produced for five years between 2001 and 2006 when digital photography was preparing to take over and put together on small volume production lines, they never made that many when compared to other models.
Second is that they’re a relatively young film camera with relatively new technology put together relatively recently. A lot of old electronics fail based on just that: they’re old. So the newer you can buy a film camera, the more years you should expect to get out of it.
And when you consider how well the FM3a was put together, those years could probably be looked at in decades. Add this to all the features and functions we’ve already discussed and you can see why they haven’t really lost any value. Especially if most people who have one are understandably not looking to sell.
If you can’t find one in your local secondhand camera shop, which would not be a surprise, your two best options online would appear to be eBay and KEH Camera.
eBay has by far the bigger number of available listings and they are typically cheaper than at KEH, although KEH does offer the security of more stringent quality control, plus a warranty and returns policy.
Final thoughts on this terrific film camera
When I got to borrow an FM3a from my friend, one of the first things I did was check how much they’re worth. Just to know whether I needed to be extra extra careful with it instead of merely extra careful.
That was pretty much as far as my research into the camera went at the time. It’s only now that I’ve fully read up on it to write this post that I’ve come to realise exactly what I had in my hands.
For that, it’s a special camera that I’m privileged to have got the chance to shoot a few rolls of film with over the course of a couple of weeks. Long enough to get to know it more than if I was just firing off a few test shots and handing it back.
So would I buy one myself? Right now, I’m thinking… probably not. But I can see why one day I might.
For what I currently do with my film photography, which is mainly take photographs for this site, spending $800 on a camera is completely unnecessary. Especially with my levels of disposable income.
The FM3a’s ability to shoot in manual mode would be almost redundant for me too. I don’t want to shoot like that and I don’t foresee taking an FM3a into a situation where I’d need to revert to it instead of its aperture priority setting.
That all points to thinking that if I did want a Nikon SLR from this range, an FE2 for around half the price or less would probably suffice. The problem there is they’re roughly 20 years older than the FM3a and it’s often the electronics that will stop a camera like this working. And you never know quite when that’ll happen.
So that’s where I am. This is undoubtedly a fantastic camera, but it comes at an equally fantastic price. Right now, I wouldn’t pay that much just for its features and functions.
But with it being so well built and still pretty new compared to a lot of other film cameras still in circulation today, the biggest reason I possibly would invest in one down the line would be how many years of use I should hopefully get out of it.
That’s all speculation though and this review has gone on long enough to need any of that.
So I’ll wrap it up here with a call to let me know in the comments below your experiences if you have an FM3a or your expectations if you’re looking to pick one up, be that from KEH Camera, from eBay, or from anywhere else.
And as ever, thanks for reading. 😀
If you found that Nikon FM3a review useful, why not check out these other great film cameras too:
- A review of the modern classic Instax Mini 9
- A review of the iconic plastic Holga 120N
- Check every single camera review on My Favourite Lens
And if you think others will also enjoy or benefit from this review, help them find it by sharing or pinning. 😀